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Egypt begins to control influx of Gazans; Israel says it wants ties cut with territory
An Egyptian border guard, right, tries to control Palestinians crossing the border after militants exploded the separated wall between Gaza Strip and Egypt early Wednesday, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2008. Egyptian forces began trying to control the masses of Palestinians flooding across the border for a second day Thursday, stopping some from moving deeper into Egypt, but not attempting to reseal the border. Thousands of Gazans trapped in their territory by a tight blockade pour into Egypt to buy food, fuel and other supplies that have become scarce. - photo by Associated Press
    RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Egyptian border guards took measures to control huge crowds of Palestinians streaming from Gaza to Egypt across a breached border for a second day Thursday, but they did not try to halt the flow.
    On Wednesday, Palestinian gunmen used land mines to blast down the border partition so Gazans could escape an Israeli closure imposed last week that was making food, fuel and other goods scarce. Tens of thousands of Gazans have rushed into Egypt without any border controls.
    On the frontier, guards were patrolling access roads while helmeted police with sniffer dogs used batons to beat the hoods of private cars and pickup trucks that massed at the border, trying to stop them from carrying Palestinians further into Egyptian territory.
    Egyptian officials said the border would eventually ‘‘return to normal.’’
    In the past two days, Gazans stocked up on supplies in Egypt, including cement, fuel, cigarettes and other staples.
    In response to continuing Palestinian rocket attacks, Israel stopped emergency shipments of industrial diesel fuel, arguing that Gazans could now get those supplies from Egypt. However, Palestinian officials said Gaza’s power plant would shut down Sunday for the second time in a week if fuel shipments do not resume.
    The border breach effectively ended Israel’s tight blockade of Gaza imposed in response to a spike in the attacks on Israeli border towns.
    Some Palestinian travelers in the Egyptian town of El Arish, about 15 miles from the border, said they were told by local police they should start making their way back if they had no urgent business in the city, signaling that authorities were trying to start resealing of the border.
    Gazans had hoped the temporary border opening would become permanent. Both Egypt and Israel had restricted the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza after Hamas won parliament elections in 2006, and further tightened the closure after Hamas seized control of the area from moderates by force.
    ‘‘The Egyptians started doing good deeds by letting us in. For God’s sake, why don’t they keep allowing us to pass through?’’ said Mohammed Abu Amra, a Palestinian walking across the border on crutches. ‘‘Everyone is rushing into Egypt before they seal it off.’’
    Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai, meanwhile, caused a stir when he said Israel gradually wants to relinquish responsibility for Gaza now that a border fence with Egypt has been blown open.
    Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel struck a similar tone, saying that once Gazans are getting supplies from elsewhere, there is less need for Israel to provide for them.
    Privately, Israeli officials said the border breach could pave the way for increasingly disconnecting from the territory.
    However, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, speaking to The Associated Press on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, did not echo Vilnai’s remarks.
    ‘‘I don’t go too far in my interpretation of this,’’ Barak said.
    Egypt angrily rejected the Israeli ideas, and said it would not change border arrangements.
    ‘‘The border will go back as normal,’’ said Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki, adding that Egypt had not been approached by Israel about a possible change in the status of Gaza.
    Egypt has not yet indicated how it plans to reseal the border, but it would not be that difficult for it to rebuild some type of physical barrier fairly quickly. Egypt is highly unlikely to leave the border town of Rafah united, instead probably aiming to re-create some type of partition in roughly the same position as the old one.
    For now, it appeared Egypt was moving slowly, putting its forces in the area as a first step toward later pushing Gazans back and then re-erecting a barrier.
    In a previous major breach, after the Israeli pullout from Gaza in 2005, Egypt closed the border after four days and issued a deadline for Gazans to return home. Troops searched for, detained and fined stragglers who were then sent to their side of the border. Egypt also lined up armored personnel carriers and riot police as a makeshift border barrier, and eventually rebuilt a small border fence.
    The border breach has boosted the popularity of Gaza’s Hamas rulers, who in recent months had struggled to govern because of border closures.
    The sanctions have led to severe shortages of cement, cigarettes and other basic goods, deepened poverty and drove up unemployment.
    Hamas has used the breach — carefully planned with militants weakening the metal wall with blow torches about a month ago — to push its demand for reopening the border passages, this time with Hamas involvement. Such an arrangement would in effect end the international sanctions that have isolated the Islamic militants.
    Hamas government spokesman Taher Nunu suggested Thursday that Hamas would seek a future role on the Gaza-Egypt border.
    ‘‘An open border like this has no logic,’’ he said. ‘‘We are studying the mechanism of having an official crossing point.’’
    However, it was not clear whether Egypt will acquiesce. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been under intense public pressure at home in recent days to alleviate the suffering of Gazans under blockade. However, Egypt would likely be reluctant to have an open border with a territory ruled by Islamic militants.
    In Tel Aviv, visiting U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said that while Hamas itself was to blame for the shortages in the Gaza Strip, it was Egypt’s responsibility to restore order at its border.
    ‘‘Obviously it is going to be up to the Egyptian government to bring under control the situation along the border,’’ he said at the start of a meeting with Israeli Cabinet minister Shaul Mofaz.
    Cargo shipments across the border picked up. Trucks and donkey carts pulled up to the Egyptian side, the goods were unloaded and carried across to the Gazan side where they were put in waiting trucks.
    Gaza businessman Abu Omar Shurafa received a shipment of 100 tons of cement, seizing an opportunity to stock up before the border closes again.
    ‘‘Everyone is exerting all efforts to stock the reserves for six to seven months. We have to find a way to continue living,’’ he said.
    Still, he was also hopeful that this could be the beginning of a new arrangement. ‘‘A solution has to be like this,’’ he said, referring to the flow of goods from Egypt.
    Some Gazans just wanted to get out, even for a few hours.
    ‘‘We just want freedom,’’ said Adel Tildani, who was bringing his mother-in-law from Egypt into Gaza to meet grandchildren she had never seen before. ‘‘I don’t need to buy anything. Freedom is more important.’’
    AP reporters Omar Sinan, Salah Nasrawi and Dan Perry contributed to this report from Rafah, Egypt, Cairo and Davos, Switzerland, respectively.

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